Vote No on Question 2

Watertown Strong Schools encourages everyone to vote "No" on Question 2 (Charter Schools) on November 8th.  

We support strengthening our public schools for all students, and we advocate for funding of all resources needed by our district educators.  

And, although charter schools might be a viable alternative for other students elsewhere in the Commonwealth, Watertown has made a concerted effort to build programming over the last few years that allows Watertown students to remain within the District whenever feasible.

Fund Schools First, Vote No On The CPA

Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) is urging Watertown voters to vote no on ballot question #5 regarding the Community Preservation Act (CPA). Here’s why:

The funding needs of our schools should be Watertown’s highest priority at this time. 

  • All 5 of our schools are in urgent need of renovations and physical upgrades so that our buildings can support the overcrowding issues facing our Elementary schools and the high-quality 21st Century education that all our children deserve. 
  • The Watertown Public Schools (WPS) Facilities Master Plan study is almost complete, and initial cost estimates are that we will need at least $200 million to upgrade our school buildings.
  • We believe that the passage of the CPA in November could jeopardize the willingness of Watertown residents to vote in favor of a debt exclusion override that will be necessary in the next 1-2 years to fund these essential school renovations.

WSS is not taking a position against the merits of the CPA itself, but rather on the timing of the CPA ballot initiative.

  • We agree that investment in preserving and enhancing our community in the areas of historic preservation, affordable housing, and parks and open spaces is a worthwhile goal.
  • Nevertheless, at this time we do not see any of the needs or opportunities in these areas as rising to the same level of priority as the needed renovations of our schools
  • We suggest that the CPA discussion be postponed until Watertown finalizes its school building needs and secures the funding for their associated costs. 

We acknowledge that Watertown residents come from a wide range of economic situations and that for many the decision may come down to affordability and priorities.  We cannot presume that a majority will vote for both the CPA and school building renovations. How many times will Watertown voters approve additional tax increases over a short period of time, particularly given the recent increase of multi-family property taxes? We are not willing to risk the funding needed to move forward with future school building projects and the education of our students -- Are you?

In order to spread our message, Watertown Strong Schools will be placing signs around town.  If you support our position and are interested in hosting a yard sign, please contact watertownstrongschools@gmail.com with your name and address, and we will be sure to deliver the sign to you. 

To keep informed about education-related issues in Watertown, visit our website at http://www.watertownstrongschools.com, and like our Watertown Strong Schools page on Facebook. 

For more information about the CPA, please visit http://www.communitypreservation.org/.

Unofficial Minutes: School Committee Meeting 9/12/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by: Kate Coyne, Alyson Morales, and David Stokes.

Committee members: John Portz, Chair; Kendra Foley, Vice-Chair; Guido Guidotti, Secretary; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Candace Miller; Mark Sideris; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Assistant Superintendent; Craig Hardimon, Human Resources Director.

Audience members: Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council; Lisa Feltner, Town Council; Michael Driscoll, Town Manager; Pete Caron, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; Diego Hammerschlag, WSS; Alyson Morales, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Mark Cotton; Elaina Griffith; Lily Tripler; Mike Shephard; Charlie Breitrose, Watertown News; and many more teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.

The entire meeting was broadcast live and can be watched on demand at http://wcatv.org/vod/school-committee-8/.

Recognition of Retiree

The School Committee recognized the 31 years of “faithful and efficient” service and contributions of Gaylene Fantasia, Personnel Assistant (and “Queen of Graduation”), on the event of her retirement from Watertown Public Schools Central Office.  Ms. Fantasia received a standing ovation from the entire Committee and audience, as well as a copy of the signed proclamation of the School Committee, conveying their “deep appreciation of [her] splendid service to our Town”.

Student Advisors

It is only day 3 of school, but things are going smoothly. Fall sports are doing well: football and field hockey won their recent games.

Superintendent Contract

Dr. Fitzgerald announced her retirement from Watertown Public Schools and read the following statement:

“We are “back to school” again after a summer of busy preparation and projects, such as teacher-led curriculum workshops, ongoing long-range facilities planning, and successful teacher contract negotiations. I would like to thank all members of the Watertown faculty and staff who worked diligently to make our schools ready to welcome students.

Every new school year represents a fresh start and an opportunity to explore new challenges. We reflect on what we have accomplished, set new goals, and begin the work required to move forward. As this school year begins, I have decided to make such a change in my own career as an educator. After a long and rewarding career in public education, I am today announcing my retirement from the Watertown Public Schools.  I will remain in my current role until the beginning of October to allow the School Committee to facilitate a transition.

I am very proud of what we have accomplished together in Watertown since I joined this great community seven years ago. During this time, we have

  • Implemented significant curriculum improvements emphasizing 21stst Century Learning initiatives to include Global Competency, elementary foreign language, and STEAM programs that will make Watertown students competitive in today’s world
  • Addressed inadequate and aging school facilities through local planning and the Massachusetts School Building Authority process
  • Upgraded facilities, programs, and practices to ensure the best available safety resources for Watertown schools
  • Improved school department business practices to establish an effective, efficient budgeting and finance system
  • Focused the professional development program to engage educators in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity
  • Established a Behavioral Health Department to address the social emotional welfare of our students
  • Strengthened relationships between school leadership and the Watertown Educators Association, and
  • Supported innovative programs like Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation curriculum that brought together Watertown students, teachers, and police officers.

With commitment to our schools and utmost respect for each individual’s worth and contributions, I worked every day to improve student success and wellbeing. I would like to express my deepest gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all faculty, staff, students, parents, and the community.

I wish you a happy and successful school year.”

John Portz then made an announcement that the School Committee would hold a public meeting on Monday September 19th at 7pm at Town Hall in the Council Chambers to discuss the process and timeline for hiring an Interim Superintendent and a permanent Superintendent. Public comment is welcome. For those that cannot attend, comments can be sent to all School Committee members at schoolcommittee@watertown.k12.ma.us.

Public Forum #1

For exact statements please refer to the video link at the top of the minutes.  The content below is our best attempt at a summary.

Julie McMahon, former School Committee member, spoke and expressed her sadness at Dr. Fitzgerald’s retirement and stated that you “never really know what you have until its gone.”

Holly Cachimeul, WMS Spanish teacher, stated that the district “will really miss you across the board” and that she was worried going forward as a teacher.

Lindi DeLorio, read a resolution against lifting the cap on Charter Schools and asked the School Committee to adopt the resolution. John Portz stated that it couldn’t be addressed during this meeting as it was not part of the agenda, but accepted a copy for consideration.

Elizabeth Lloyd, Innovation Specialist at Lowell Elementary School, spoke to thank Dr. Fitzgerald for her leadership and her “big ideas”.

Andrew Allegro, Watertown resident who works with kids, spoke to thank Dr. Fitzgerald for his first job at WMS with Dr. Carter.

Unit A Contract with Watertown Educators’ Association

Kendra Foley read the following statement:

“John Portz and I made up the school committee negotiating team for this new 3-year contract.  We would like to thank WEA President Deb King and the members of the union negotiating team for enabling an honest and thoughtful process.  And, thank you to the Superintendent, Business Manager and HR Director for their invaluable participation. 

As with any collective bargaining agreement, this one includes compromises by both parties, and in that context, I feel this contract has allowed us to tackle a number of important issues around school schedule, parental engagement, time on learning, and compensation.

Strong parental involvement is part of the foundation of any high quality educational system.  Parent/teacher conferences, scheduled in the fall and the spring, are an important tool for family engagement and communication.  Over the past few years, we have had four half days and one evening dedicated to parent/teacher conferences each fall and spring.  With two working parents, having daytime parent/teacher conferences can be a challenge.  Also, these eight half days over the course of the school year can erode time on learning for our students. 

This new contract has increased the number of evening meetings from 3 to 5, which will allow the School Administration to make a scheduling adjustment that will benefit both parents and students.  Instead of four half days and one evening for parent/teacher conferences, the Administration will have more flexibility to schedule fewer half days -- as few as one or two -- and two evenings each fall and spring.  The changes will allow for more time on learning for our students, fewer half days, and maintain the same amount of professional development, which we feel is an important support for our teachers.  This change will be reflected in the current school year. 

In the past, the school start date has changed from year to year – ranging from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the Thursday after Labor Day, which leaves uncertainty for families.  We have negotiated a change so that starting in the 2017/2018 academic year, the first day of school can always be scheduled on the Tuesday after Labor Day. 

As we embarked on the financial portion of the negotiations, we were careful to balance our strong support for our teachers with the financial constraints that exist. 

We have negotiated a cost of living adjustment over the next three years of 2.25% in the current academic year, 2% next year, and 2% in the following year.  In addition, we have increased longevity payments, which support our more experienced teachers who most often do not benefit from step increases.  And this contract caps the number of days eligible for sick leave buyback for all new teachers hired after July 1, 2016. 

Other changes in the contract include a reduction in the number of teacher work days from 185 to 184, continuation of the current practice of granting the WEA president half-time release with substitute costs paid by the union, and the possibility of additional days for bereavement leave. 

While this contract provides fair compensation to teachers, it will continue to allow the district to make investments in curriculum, programs, materials, extra-curricular activities, and more.  After many difficult financial years following the recession of 2008, the town has been generous with our schools, which we greatly appreciate.  In the current fiscal year, for example, the town provided a 5% budget increase.  The contractual costs for this agreement - the cost of living adjustment and the longevity increases - cost $720K this fiscal year.  Other projected move ahead costs that were not part of this contract negotiation are step increases, which are based on experience, and lane changes, which are based on education level, will cost $388K this fiscal year.  Including additional costs for other employees the School Administration has over $800,000 to invest in new staff, curriculum, program development, and other initiatives for the district. 

This contract is fair to our teachers, fair to the taxpayers, allows us to make additional programmatic investments in the coming years, increases time on learning for our students, and addresses a number of scheduling concerns from parents.”

Mark Sideris spoke in favor of the memorandum of agreement.  The Town Manager said that he could not support the contract due to the step structure.  The step structure in this contract has not changed, but rather it is our understanding that his objection is to the changes made to the step structure in a past contract, which is carried forward into the current agreement. The School Committee voted in favor of the contract unanimously, with the Town Manger as the only vote opposed.

The contract is expected to be posted at this website by the end of the week.

Superintendent’s Report

Dr. Fitzgerald asked the WHS Principal, Shirley Lundberg, to address scheduling at the high school. There have been some scheduling issues around singleton classes such as Music, Orchestra, Chorus, and some foreign language classes. Ms. Lundberg outlined the difficulties in moving information from iPass to PowerSchool, and that the effort required many additional hours of manual manipulation and clean up.  This effort resulted in a bit of a timeline slip:  normally, WHS tries to get the student schedules printed a few weeks before distribution on the first day of school; this year, even with the PowerSchool data scrubbing and conversion, schedules were printed and ready for and distributed on the first day of school.  The only piece that was not in place on time was the Parent Portal, which would usually have been available the week before Guidance counselors returned at the end of August, but is still waiting due to training for parents and some staff.

She acknowledged the improved, advanced, and student-centered capabilities that WHS now has with PowerScheduler, the scheduling functions in PowerSchool.  She also provided some detail about the constraints on the schedule that are programmed into PowerScheduler, including those related to teachers, students, educational necessity, and facilities.  She discussed how WHS has tried to prioritize classes and create rules that try to minimize schedule-conflicting “singletons” for students.

Candace Miller asked if there was a ballpark estimate on when the Parent Portal would be available. Ms Lundberg state that she was hoping for the week of 9/19, but she believed it would be ready by October at the latest.

Current Enrollments and Update on Elementary Student Assignment

Lauren Harwood presented current enrollment updates as of 9-9-16. She stated that since the centralized enrollment process began, 85 new students have enrolled in the district.  The breakdown is as follows:

  • Cunniff: 9 students
  • Hosmer: 22 students
  • Lowell: 21 students
  • Middle School: 23 students
  • High School: 10 students

Ms. Harwood stated that there was only one instance where a student was assigned to a school that was not their neighborhood school. That specific instance was in Grade 2 at the Cunniff, which is full, and the student was in turn assigned to the Lowell.  Ms. Harwood noted that the family was amenable to and in agreement with the assignment.

EDCO Report on Special Education

Kathleen Desmarais, Director of Special Education, presented the results of the EDCO report on Special Education. The detailed report will be made public.

Curriculum Goals Update

Elizabeth Kaplan, K-5 Math and Science Coordinator, Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator, and Magen Slesinger, FAPA Coordinator, presented an update on STEAM Curriculum. Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal, and Kraig Gustafson, 6-12 Social Studies Coordinator, presented an update on Global Competencies. The full report on Global Competency will be made public at a future date.

Compensation for Non-Aligned Employees

John Portz explained that non-aligned employees represent those staff that are not part of a union and include 33 staff members. The School Committee voted to approve $45,303 to provide a pool that represents the equivalent of a 2.5% salary increase for these employees.  However, the pool is distributed at the discretion of the Superintendent.

Revised School Calendar 2016-2017

The updated school calendar was discussed. Due to the newly approved teacher’s contract, the number of teacher working days has been reduced from 185 to 184. The resulting calendar change is to have no school on Election Day.  Parent-teacher conference dates will be discussed at a Principal’s meeting on 9/13/16 and will be made public in the near future.

School Committee Meeting Dates for 2016-2017

John Portz discussed the School Committee meeting schedule. All meetings will be held on a Monday, except the October meeting that will be held on Wednesday 10/5 with a location still to be determined.

Master Plan Facilities Study – Update

The final Master Plan Community Forum was held at the end of August.  The Steering Committee is waiting to receive a copy of the draft report from SMMA.  Once the report is received a final Steering Committee meeting will be scheduled to discuss it along with sequencing of potential construction projects.  Once the report is made final (a few weeks after the final Steering Committee meeting), it will be presented to a joint meeting of the School Committee and Town Council. Further information can be found at the Buildings & Grounds/Master Plan website, including meeting agendas, minutes and presentation materials.

Phillips Building Preschool Construction – Update

The main construction project at the Phillips is complete.  There are a few punch list items that will be completed in the near future.  There has not yet been an upgrade to the playground, but some new playground equipment has been ordered and will be installed in the near future.

Public Forum #2

For exact statements please refer to the video link at the top of the minutes.  The content below is our best attempt at a summary.

Barbara Barry, a 4th Grade Cunniff teacher, stated that she used to wonder why a district needed a Superintendent, but came to understand the value of the Superintendent’s role. She was sad to see Dr. Fitzgerald retire and noted that Dr. Fitzgerald will be terribly missed.

Cara Coller, a parent, thanked Dr. Fitzgerald for all of the help she has provided and worries that people looking at Watertown will see that the Superintendent left after a group of parents called for her replacement.

Mike Shepard, former School Committee member, was upset and disappointed that Dr. Fitzgerald will not be around to see the end results of programs that she started. He stated that there is a severe shortage of quality candidates for Superintendent in Massachusetts, and that Dr. Fitzgerald will be difficult to replace.

Erika Dorenkamp was upset with the certain school committee members and parents that she felt caused Dr. Fitzgerald’s retirement.  She felt that Dr. Fitzgerald embodied the sentiment that being a Superintendent is not just being an administrator, but that success is defined by personal relationships.  She blamed the School Committee for ultimately failing to do all in its power to shield Dr. Fitzgerald from the “toxic atmosphere” in Town, and then called on John Portz to resign as chair of the School Committee.

Pete Caron, a Cunnif parent, relayed the story of a teacher in another district with very little funding who won an award for bringing her students to amazing levels of academic achievement in one year's time.  When asked how she did it she responded that she had seen the IQ test scores of her class in the office.   She knew how smart they were and expected a lot from them.   In the end it turned out that those were their locker numbers.  It isn't only what we supply our kids with in the classroom that matters, it is what we do with it that counts.   Given the amazing presentations on curriculum during the evening, it brings great excitement that our kids will be continuing through these amazing programs and curriculum with the amazing faculty in Watertown.

Chairman’s report

John Portz reiterated his earlier announcement that a public meeting would be held on Monday 9/19/16 at 7pm at Town Hall to discuss the process for hiring an Interim Superintendent and a permanent Superintendent.  Public comments on the process are welcome.

The next School Committee meeting will be held on October 5th.

Commentary

Kate Coyne

I was surprised to hear that Dr Fitzgerald would be retiring.  I am appreciative of all the work she has put into the past couple years for Watertown Public Schools.  I look forward to the process of finding a new interim Superintendent, which I understand will be a challenge. Going forward, I’m hopeful that the parents, teachers, administrators and town can come together to make this transition one which works for all.  I am confident that our community can come together and is up to the challenge.  I’m hopeful that the process to find the interim Superintendent will be one which is well thought out and transparent.       

With respect to other business, I was also glad to hear about the union negotiations but wonder if the ½ PD days were on the table during this negotiation (considering many parents and teachers have voiced wanting this). Good to know that we can start school on the Tuesday after Labor day and will have evening conferences (and less ½ days!).          

It was great to get enrollment data.  The enrollment shows that we received 85 students from August.  I’m hoping that going forward they will be able to provide the previous months enrollment so that trends can be shown.         

Looking forward to the STEAM initiative and would love to hear more about the vision over the years. 

The master plan still has very many questions.  The report is supposed to come out soon and I hope that this will help answer some of the questions.   I would also like to hear about the process going forward.  I’m also still concerned that the Phillips School (one of our schools in Watertown) is not included in the Master Plan.  I would think that one of the options offered by SMMA would be to have thePhillips renovated for preschool/pre-k in, lieu of right side of the Hosmer (especially at a cost of 100M!!).  This space could also serve as a swing space for the other schools prior to making it to a preschool/pre-k…this may or may not be the answer but this school should be part of our Master Plan regardless (and have it’s own renovations in the plan).

Alyson Morales

Dr. Fitzgerald announced her retirement from the Watertown Public Schools tonight.  It was definitely a surprise to those in the audience. Again, John Portz has encouraged everyone to attend the public meeting that will be held on Monday 9/19 at 7pm at Town Hall, where the process to find an interim and permanent Superintendent will be discussed.  Public input is welcome and encouraged.

I would like to thank everyone that was involved in negotiating the new WEA Unit A contract for all of their hard work.  The contract will be posted by the end of the week.   The additional evening parent-teacher conference days, making it easier for working parents, and the additional certainty added with the set start day of the Tuesday after Labor Day were great additions from a parent perspective.  From a financial standpoint, it is also important to ensure our teachers are well compensated and it seems that this contract achieves that goal. Again, thank you to all involved.

The WHS scheduling difficulties brought up at the meeting were concerning and I appreciate Ms. Lundberg discussing them and being open about the challenges.  From what I understand, the conflict most often seems to be between Honors classes, Orchestra, Band, Chorus and World Language and that this has been a challenge for several years. Students should not have to make the choice to drop an Honors course, drop Band/Orchestra/Chorus (which many students have been participating in since 4th grade) nor drop or switch a World Language.  I hope the new PowerSchool program will help eliminate some of the scheduling challenges, but if not I hope other solutions can be found.  If more funding is needed I hope the request is made and that it finds its way into the FY18 budget process.  These are unfair choices to ask our students to make after multi-year commitments to certain paths.

It was great to get the updated September enrollment information.  It would have been even more helpful to have a historical data point (June 2016) included to provide additional perspective on the increase in students.  While not an ideal circumstance, it was encouraging to hear that only one new student had to be reassigned away from their neighborhood school and that the family was agreeable to the move.  It will be important to keep an eye on the enrollment data, in order to both monitor the current situation as well as have the most up to date information as we continue the conversation about the need for renovations/additions to our current school buildings.

Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Steering Committee of the Master Planning Design Process on 7/19/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by: Kate Coyne and David Stokes

Committee members:  John Portz, Co-chair; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice-President; Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor; Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager and Director, Community Development and Planning; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Alyson Morales; Mike Shepard; Elaina Griffith; Chris Lowry; and Lindsay Mosca.

Absent members: Liz Yusem, Co-chair; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; Deb King, WEA President and WMS teacher; Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal; and Pete Caron.

Audience members:  Kendra Foley, School Committee Vice-chair; Candace Miller, School Committee; Mark Sideris, Town Council President; Jim Cairns, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; John Labadini; Elodia Thomas; Christie Fisher, WPS Administrative Assistant; and other community members.

Building Tours Discussion and Feedback

Steering Committee members that were able to attend the building tours provided impressions and feedback to SMMA.

Lindsay Mosca:

  • Cunniff: classrooms were small, the building felt strangled, there were limited options to expand
  • WHS: lack of dedicated teacher collaborative space

Michael Dattoli:

  • Agreed with much of Lindsay’s feedback and saw a lot of opportunity overall
  • WHS: lots of dead space
  • Hosmer: possible conversion of extra gym.  Is the school getting too big?  Does it have too many students?
  • WMS: possible conversion of extra gym
  • Cunniff: very small

Steve Magoon:

  • Overall the schools were not in bad shape
  • All of the Elementary schools are using all available space
  • Lowell: no options to expand
  • Hosmer: no options to expand
  • Cunniff: second floor a possibility
  • WMS: opportunities for expansion, single level addition, small gym, courtyard
  • WHS: not as fully utilized, has maintenance issues
  • No buildings need to be knocked down

Chris Lowry:

  • Agree with Lindsay that we need to ensure we have spaces for teachers to collaborate.
  • Cunniff is at its limit
  • Hosmer is getting maybe too big?
  • Offered a “pie in the sky” thought: maybe raze the Cunniff and rebuild with better spaces, three floors, parking underneath
  • Lowell used up all of its space, but has nice space.
  • Redo the Hosmer addition to make better use of dead space

Elaina Griffith:

  • WHS layout is poor and the space challenges are different than at the Elementary schools

Vincent Piccirilli:

  • Cunniff: built on underground stream, building is dam
  • WHS: ’79 addition created bad triangular spaces; the vocational wing also has space issues. Demolish those two wings and create something in its place.
  • Hosmer: has its peculiarities
  • What are we going to do with our early education?
  • Take preschool/PreK out of Hosmer and put it somewhere else to free up space.
  • WMS: in good shape, needs a little more space.

John Portz:

  • Sees opportunities: another floor at the Cunniff, turn the Hosmer old gym and the space in front of the auditorium into a better use of space.
  • Are the older buildings worth renovating? When do you decide to build a new school?
  • He will talk to the Superintendent about setting up more tours to see the buildings at future “decision points”.

Enrollment Discussion

Michael van Hamel, SMMA Associate Architect, gave a bit of background on the latest enrollment forecast provided via handouts. Michael and Dr. Fitzgerald spoke with representatives from both NESDC and DecisionInsite regarding the enrollment forecasts and were able to gain some deeper insight.  Some of this information was provided at the previous night’s School Committee meeting. New information provided at tonight’s meeting was the enrollment forecast broken down by grade and school.  It was stated that the ideal Elementary school size is somewhere between 350 and 500 students and that the Hosmer is getting too big as it is nearing 600 students.  The enrollment forecast provided will be used as input into the Master Plan process.

Preview and Discussion of Building Options

Michael van Hamel started by going over the proposed space summaries provided as handouts.  There was a space summary provided for each school, describing existing conditions compared to MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) standards for new construction.  The handouts are based on the MSBA worksheet that determines number of classrooms, overall space requirements, etc. based on intended student enrollment.  The information was provided for current enrollment and future enrollment projections.

A summary of how the total space in each school compares to MSBA standards for new school construction in terms of square footage is as follows:

  • Cunniff: Net floor space is generally undersized. Total building gross floor area is generally undersized.
  • Lowell: Net floor space is generally undersized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.
  • Hosmer: Net floor space is generally oversized in the near-term and becomes undersized as enrollment assumptions increase. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.
  • WMS: Net floor space is generally oversized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.
  • WHS: Net floor space is generally oversized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.

Michael then walked the group through images of each school and described some options that SMMA has been considering.  The images showed the additions/changes to the buildings as blocks to demonstrate massing (also called “volumetric views”), rather than a more-detailed, in-depth design. Some key points from the discussion are as follows:

  • Cunniff: The addition of a second floor on the new wing could increase capacity to 450 or possibly 500 students. Adding a second floor to increase capacity does not address the issue of an undersized gym and cafeteria.  The gym could be expanded slightly towards the back of the building.  SMMA would have to look into options for the cafeteria. A two level cafeteria may be possible, but is not usually something done for Elementary Schools.
  • Lowell: The School Department owns the lawn in front of the school on Orchard St.  An addition could be appended to the front of the building with some terracing into the lawn.  There is also room for an addition near the parking lot space by the small playground.
  • Hosmer: The dead space near the auditorium could be redone and there is an option for a single story addition in the area near the corner of Boylston St. and Chauncy St.
  • WMS: Renovate old (“little”) gym (right below the library) into a library/media center? Make use of courtyard space? Possible addition on Bemis St. and Westminster Ave. corner of the building? The building, especially the old West Jr. High portion, could benefit from a lot of interior renovation.
  • WHS: The former vocational technology wing can use some renovation.  Lots of space is underutilized.  The building needs a good interior renovation.

The discussion then turned towards what the town’s goals were for the Elementary schools.  The 3 schools currently have significantly different capacities – the Cunniff having the smallest number of students, and the Hosmer having the largest.  There was an overall agreement across the Steering Committee to move towards a goal of rebalancing the schools and the associated school “attendance areas”.  Overall consensus was to try to move toward school capacities of 400 students for the Cunniff, 450 for the Lowell and 500 for the Hosmer.

Additionally, Vinnie Piccirilli raised the issue of the movement towards Universal PreK across the Commonwealth in the future (in, perhaps, 5 years down the road) and what implications that might have for the current planning as part of the Master Plan. Dr. Fitzgerald said that she would provide additional information to SMMA on what the projected enrollment numbers would possibly look like for Universal PreK and growth in the preschool, in order to assist with the planning.

Upcoming Community Forum Preparation

The discussion then moved to the information that will be presented at the upcoming Community Forum (on 7/27 @ 7:00 PM in WHS).  SMMA acknowledged that they will provide the following items during that Forum:

  1. An overview of the process
  2. A summary of what was learned at the first Community Forum via word clouds
  3. A summary of what was learned from discussions with the Educational Leadership team
  4. Information on the enrollment forecasts via graphics
  5. An overview of the options being discussed. 

Vincent Piccirilli requested that documents be available on the website a few days before the Community Forum, so that community members would have an opportunity to preview the information prior to attending the Forum.  Steve Magoon asked that the building options be depicted in a bit more realistic manner, particularly with respect to actual placement in/on/around the building, rather than as stand-alone blocks, in order to make the information easier to understand.

Questions/Feedback From the Audience

The discussion was opened to the public for comment and questions.

Kate Coyne felt that the rebalancing idea was great, but requested that the Committee keep in mind the impact on the gym and specials classrooms (as they may need to be larger in size and/or number).  

Elodia Thomas asked for better communication with the community.  She stated that she had heard from some teachers that they were unaware of the process. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she sent a personal letter to teachers letting them know about the process and inviting them to participate.  Elodia asked that the word get out to PTOs as well, so that they could help spread the word.  Elaina Griffith offered to spread the word with the PTOs.  Elodia also asked that a better description be sent in an easier-to-understand, more engaging manner.  She felt that the message announcing the last Community Forum was not descriptive enough with regard to the process to impart the importance of attending to Watertown residents.  Dr. Fitzgerald agreed to work with Steve Magoon on messaging and would send the message out through the Town’s “NotifyMe” messaging system.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she is currently unable to send out district-wide emails to parents, as the District is in the middle transitioning from the old iPass system (which has already been turned off) and the new PowerSchool program, which is not yet up and running.

Vincent Piccirilli asked if the Steering Committee members would be able to take with them a copy of the school floor plans which were color coded to show undersized and oversized classrooms according to MSBA standards.  He was told no by Michael van Hamel, Dr. Fitzgerald, and John Portz, due to safety concerns about sharing detailed floor plans of school buildings.  Some members felt that it was against the law to release them, but Vinnie explained the law around public records and noted that the law says the Superintendent shall decide whether she wants to release them or not. 

He pointed out that Town Councilors, Town employees, and members of other public bodies often have to deal with confidential information, and he felt the Steering Committee could be trusted with the information.  He further explained that the law specifically, and unusually, stipulates that giving one person this sort of sensitive information does not set precedent, such that all persons who request must receive the same sensitive information. 

Nonetheless, the Superintendent decided to err on the side of caution, as she was concerned that if anything happened due to the release of the floor plans, it would be her responsibility, and she was not willing to accept that level of risk.  In the end, she asked Michael van Hamel to alter the level of detail of the floor plans and to provide the information at a future meeting in a way that would not be a safety risk.  He agreed to do so.

Commentary

David Stokes

This meeting, as someone else has already said to me, is the meeting that I expected 2 meetings ago.  SMMA asked the Steering Committee for actual input (not just factual, historical information), and real decisions were finally made.

In addition, I found the feedback and impressions from the tour to be very informative.  I am somewhat familiar with the Cunniff, the Hosmer, and WHS, and am more intimately familiar with the Lowell and WMS.  However, I certainly could follow along.  I might suggest that some of those impressions be assembled into a “guided tour” of sorts for the 2nd Community Forum.  I am sure that many parents are not as familiar with all 5 schools as the Committee members are that took the tour.  That sort of “guided tour” might provide better context as the discussion builds to SMMA’s presentation around the renovation and rebuilding options that they are currently exploring.

The slight drawback to this meeting was the devolving discourse at the end, regarding the Steering Committee members’ receipt (and use outside the Committee meetings) of school floor plans.  People escalated to talking (and then shouting) over each other and not listening to one another.  The Co-chair appeared to have lost all control at one point, when decorum had seemingly flown out the open windows.  It was not a pretty sight.  No one seemed to be searching for the middle ground, for compromise.  As an Information Security Manager for a Critical Infrastructure utility (where a security breach can become a public health issue for literally millions of people) with 14+ years of experience, I know for a fact that there are tools and techniques that can be employed to provide information in a secure fashion to a limited audience, even in an electronic format.  But no one asked me.  I wish someone had.

Shifting focus back to the more positive energy of the meeting, I have high hopes again for the 2nd Community Forum.  I heard mixed messages from those who were able to attend the 1st Community Forum – many good, and some not so good.  But, in this case, past performance does not have to predict future outcomes.  Therefore, I have high hopes again.

Now, I know that not every parent and member of the Watertown community has the time to devote to these sorts of meetings.  But, if you want to give your input into the way your WPS schools will evolve over the next 10 years, I urge you to find a way to come to WHS @ 7:00 PM on Wednesday, 7/27.  I look forward to seeing you there and listening to your thoughts and reactions to SMMA’s presentation!